Researchers study how to combat wildfire smoke impact to wine

Watch the full story at 6 p.m. Wednesday to see what researchers are doing to combat the effects of wildfire smoke on wine in Washington.

PROSSER, Wash – As waves of wildfire smoke move through vineyards, compounds can impact grapes and vines. In some cases, fire smoke can turn the flavor of alcohol into ash.

Washington State University researchers are working to understand exactly how that process works and what can be done to limit or prevent it.

Tom Collins, an assistant professor at WSU specializing in grape research and wine chemistry, came to the academy after working in winemaking. He investigated first-hand the impact wildfire smoke can have on grapes and studied the business world. Now, he is collaborating with groups at WSU, Oregon, and California.

“We are seeing loss of fruit, loss of wine, related to smoke exposure events,” says Collins. “Not common every year but there will be enough cases worth studying to try to mitigate the damage caused by these smoke events.”

Collins’ team pumped smoke into a house around the clock, sampled grapes at various intervals, and froze them for a team in Pullman, who will do RNA work to understand which genes are turned on when exposed to smoke , is in decline -management, and how the vine is responding. In essence, it measures what defense mechanisms the vine is using.

“Most of its direct contact and we’re still studying the exact mechanism of transmission from the outside to the inside, but we know pretty quickly after the smoke hits the vine, the compounds associated with the smoke will end up inside the skin,” says Collins. “So they’re in the skin cells, and at that point, you can’t wash it off – it’s inside the berry.”

Collins says they’re doing a grape-to-glass study to find out how vines respond when you’re exposed to secondhand smoke. The study also hopes to measure whether there are materials that, if sprayed before drying, could change the amount of smoke affecting the grapes.

“We’ve shown that the materials we’re testing can reduce the number of smoke compounds that end up in fruit by about 50 percent,” says Collins. “That’s what we’ve seen from tests and some other compounds do the same. A problem, and if there’s a problem, it’s easier to solve because we’re studying concentrations. these compounds were lower than when we were doing nothing on the vineyard.”

Collins says they’ve been doing this work at WSU since about 2016. For the first few years, the team focused on building the system. The USDA and state liquor commission have poured money into the project, hoping to address a growing problem with a sour bottom. They are also building sensor networks and placing smoke sensors with particle counters in participating commercial vineyard areas.

“One of the things we’ve seen over the past decade or so is more and more cases of wildfire smoke ending up in vineyards,” says Collins. “We’ve certainly seen – not just in Washington but in California, Oregon, British Columbia – every year, somewhere up and down the West Coast, there are vineyards affected by smoke.

Collins said the smoke-affected vines have resulted in winemakers not being able to sell. With larger, more severe wildfires likely to produce more smoke, they hope to help address a problem affecting a large portion of the Pacific Northwest economy. Researchers study how to combat wildfire smoke impact to wine

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